By DAN MACINTOSH
Suzanne Vega came along in the ‘80s, a musical time best known for synthesizers, big hair and colorful stage costumes. Like acoustic-guitar-playing Trojan Horses, though, a few brainy artists somehow snuck onto the pop charts during those sometimes-outlandish days. Along with Tracy Chapman, Vega proved that thoughtful songs could still get a hearing, against the backdrop so much (too much?) flash.
Vega has always worn her New York City roots on her sleeve, which makes it only natural she calls this hometown live album An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. The recording is a deceptive 24 tracks long, but this is because Vega’s between song stories are also given their own track numbers. Some of this album is as notable for what Vega doesn’t say, as what she does.
For instance, her breakthrough hit, “Luka,” needs no introduction. Thus, it includes none. Vega doesn’t load her live set with a bunch of cover songs. When she does do a cover, though, her choice is significant. She performs Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” the signature song of the consummate New Yorker. She introduces the iconic song by telling the story of seeing that old curmudgeon in person for the first time. She was only 19 and had just moved out of her parents’ apartment. She recalls buying bright red lipstick and nail polish for the occasion, which made feel extra Rock N Roll. It’s unusual to hear this song as little more than a strummed guitar tune. Where’s the sexy, jazzy saxophone, which made is especially New York-ish at the time? It’s also unusual to hear this blunt song, all about alternative lifestyles, sung by a woman.
Then again, Vega has a somewhat dispassionate vocal tone. Her voice doesn’t crack, and she never pushes it to its limit. Instead, she’s a little like Blondie’s Debby Harry – never ever losing her cool. She closes her show with “Tom’s Diner,” which she explains takes place on the Upper West Side. As you may recall, this song appeared on Vega’s album Solitude Standing, but took on new life in 1990 when British group DNA remixed it and turned their version into a hit in various countries. The venue’s real name is Tom’s Restaurant, and Seinfeld fans recognize its exterior as Monk’s Café in the sitcom.
Rarely is a live album this conceptual. One song is called “New York Is A Woman,” whereas another is called “New York Is My Destination.” If songs don’t have the city name right there in their titles, stories oftentimes take place within the city limits. Oddly enough, Vega was born in Santa Monica, California, but her parents relocated to New York before she turned three. She studied modern dance, prior to settling on music as a career. She may have mastered the delicate moves of a dancer, but her songs express a kind of toughness that can only be learned while living city life.
Let’s hope this career overview prevents Suzanne Vega from being forgotten. She was so much more than just a blip on the ‘80s radar screen, and one of the best singer/songwriters that many times overblown decade produced.